Baccalaureate Speech -- Thomas H. Blackburn
28 May, 2000
Members of the Board of Managers, Colleagues on the Faculty and Administration, Parents and Friends, and the Great Class of 2000. I have just had the special pleasure of discovering that one of the privileges of retiring is becoming an honorary member of the Alumni Association in the Class of 2000 — I am thus doubly honored to share this combination of commencement and conclusion with all of you.
As is often the unacknowledged but true case on occasions such as this when you have let yourselves be trapped as a captive audience, there is some bad news, and some good news. The bad news is that my talk is in three parts; the good news is that they are all brief. Each of the parts takes off in some way from the text I asked Martha to read today. The first part makes some brief comparisons between Milton's idea of education and the four years you have just navigated successfully. The second, as the Baccaluareate tradition requires, is something like a sermon about choice. Finally, I will turn to some more personal reflections on my own choices and yours, past, present and future.
Two quick notes before I begin. Though Milton actually was less sexist than many of his contemporaries, his language still fails our tests of inclusiveness, so please add "or she, or her" into all his pronouns. Second, I hope that my pauses and emphases will make clear enough when Milton's voice is to be heard rather than mine.
As a student himself at Cambridge University, Milton did not hesitate to critique the studies he had been made to endure in harsh terms that may strike a responsive chord in many of you. He complained about "how much contemptible nonsense there is from the grammarians and the teachers of composition. When the former teach their art, they talk like barbarians, and the latter like infants"; logic is stuffed with "thistles and briars"; metaphysics is "a scandalous reef and bog of sophistry, which has been contrived to bring men to shipwreck and ruin"; mathematicians "suffer from the foolish vanity of their demonstrations"; and finally, and perhaps worst of all, "Our legal science suffers from the confusion of our system, and — still worse — from a jargon that I can hardly begin to describe. It may be the gibberish of American Indians, and it may not be human speech at all." The epistle Of Education, than should be read as a reformist document, penned when Milton had metamorphosed from a student to a teacher himself.
The curriculum that Milton outlines there is the only educational scheme I have seen that could make Swarthmore's graduation requirements seem modest. He begins by assuming that students will have mastered grammar in English, Latin and Greek, the easier classical literary texts, and a great deal of the practical and scientific learning preserved in Latin and Greek even before they begin their more mature studies — a massive humanist PDC requirement to be completed before the age of 17. Economics, Politics, Law, Theology, Rhetoric and Logic, and a large dose of literature make up the Miltonic distribution requirements for the equivalent of our later college years. Even if we recognize this as a reasonable curriculum for an age before the rise of modern science, it seems formidable, and even at Swarthmore we don't ask you to learn Italian "at any odd hour," to add the extra-curricular study of a language like Hebrew, or to find it to "be no impossibility to add the Chaldey and Syrian dialect." Milton's is a curriculum designed by a life-long master student who sought to know everything there was to be known in the mid-seventeenth century. This comprehensive ideal, however, was made forever untenable by the knowledge explosion in each of the subsequent centuries. Even with an Honors major and minor and another course major and two concentrations, the most ambitious Swarthmore student could still not hope to meet Milton's graduation requirements. When tempted to flaunt the rigors of your education in the face of those other institutions where "it would have been an "A", this reflection may induce a salutary humility. You have nonetheless been asked to approach the Miltonic ideal in the breadth and depth of knowledge that our curriculum demands, and you can take justified pride in your meeting that challenge.
Before going on to address in my semi-sermon the crucial question of why Milton, or you, should pursue an ambitious program of learning, I do want to note that Milton also urges that time be set aside in every school day, not only for the music he loved, but also for those exercises that will keep students "healthy, nimble, strong and well in breath." I like to think that he would heartily approve of the new Mullan Tennis Center. Were he with me on the Athletic Review Committee I am sure he could be persuaded that a strong program of intercollegiate sports, including football, contributes significantly both to fitness and to the "gallant and fearless courage" and "true fortitude and patience" that he sought from competitive exercises such as fencing and wrestling.
My sermon takes its cue from the beginning of today' s text — from Milton's hope that "years and good general precepts" will furnish "students with that act of reason which in ethics is called Proairesis," so that "they may with some judgement contemplate upon moral good and evil." For Milton this capacity to judge and choose between good and evil, between the false and the true, is the hallmark of reason, that gift that distinguishes man from the rest of the animal kingdom.
In the Areopagitica, Milton's empassioned oration against a licensed press, the drama of this act of reason as choice is set out in vivid images: "the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned, that those confused seeds which were imposed upon Psyche as an incessant labor to cull out and sort asunder, were not more intermixed. It was from out the rind of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evil, as two twins cleaving together, leaped forth into the world." The education that Milton prescribes is so overwhelmingly inclusive because he sees such universal knowledge as the only guide to culling out the good seeds. If one is to be able, as both Milton and St. Paul demand, to "prove all things," and "hold fast to that which is good," no source of knowledge can be neglected. It is equally important that no source of knowledge be left untested or accepted only on the word of any authority, no matter how powerful. In the context of Areopagitica, banning books suspected of political or religious heresy deprives mankind of the possibility of "proving all things," by the clash of contraries out of which true judgement can alone be formed. For Adam and Eve in Milton's Paradise Lost to have resisted the temptation to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil without first having heard the seductive blandishments of Satan and the urgings of their own physical natures, would have denied their free dignity as creatures of reason. To be truly moral, again from Areopagitica, requires that one exercise informed reason to "see and know, and yet abstain" in the face of the most tempting falsehoods.
As a professor of English, I am of course delighted by the place that Milton assigns for literature as constituting a significant part of the knowledge that will inform choice. In its "simple, sensuous and passionate" discourse, poetry evokes imaginative responses that touch regions not ruled by reason, and makes them available to be judged by reason in the end. To my mind the great soliloquies by Shakespeare, like Hamlet's "To be or not to be" put us in touch with characters engaging themselves in just such discourses of choice as Milton envisages. They remind us that we must inevitably make choices in a universe where the consequences of those choices are always hidden in the future. And they dramatize the fact that though our choices may have tragic consequences, we must choose or succumb to a fatal paralysis of the will.
Once started in this vein, I could multiply and analyze examples ad infinitum, and renege on my pledge to sermonize only briefly. I hope that the little I have had time to say has spurred the corollary in your minds that I meant to evoke for — a liberal arts education at Swarthmore strives in its breadth and rigor to be morally enabling in a way of which Milton would have approved. Though you may not have been asked literally to "prove all things," you have been asked to prove a lot, to contemplate how knowledge is constituted, and to see the act of reasoned judgement as central not only to education but to life. I am mildly surprised to find myself reaching a conclusion that puts Al Bloom in the company of John Milton, but "ethical intelligence" might well stand as a translation of that proairesis, that act of reason, that inspired these reflections in the first place.
Before I close on a much less elevated and more personal note, I want to draw two more themes from our texts. The first is especially dear to my heart since it brings together both those high aims of education and the particular concern for writing expressed at Swarthmore in my work with the Writing Associates Program. Only when students have learned from the best examples the grammatical and stylistic arts that would "inable [them] to discourse and write perspicuously, elegantly and according to the fitted style of lofty, mean or lowly," and after they are enriched with all the objects of study, does Milton deem them capable of becoming "Writers and composers in every excellent matter" so that "honor and attention" will be waiting on them." For Milton, to write badly is a sin against the gift of reason itself. In Areopagitica he gives the model of a writing process to which I hope you all are and will be committed, whether the task be a lab report, a campaign speech, or the next great novel: When one "writes to the world, he (or she) summons up all his reason and deliberation to assist him; he searches, meditates, is industrious, and likely consults and confers with his judicious friends (WAs, of course): after all which done, he takes himself to be informed in what he writes as an that writ before him."
The second theme follows from the idea of "writing to the world." Though Milton was a deeply contemplative scholar and poet, he was also a life-long activist — he also wrote his works and himself "to the world." He was at the heart of the tumultuous politics of the English Civil War, and a fearless international critic of political or religious tyranny wherever he detected it. In the most ringing of the many moving passages in Areopagitica, Milton thunders: "I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat." I take these lines in two ways; one points back toward the question of reasoned intellectual choice, to the necessary dust and heat to be endured when one abandons the safe haven of received opinion and untested belief. The other points out to the world and away from the cloister that a sheltered and intellectual place like Swarthmore may be for all of us. If your education has been as "complete and generous" as Milton would wish, then it will fit one to "perform justly, skillfully and magnanimously all the offices, both public and private of peace and war." Many of you have already shown yourself ready to assume those offices in the first powerful epistles you have sent to the world. All of you have been tested by Swarthmore itself in academic and personal races run through all manner of dust and heat. I can only conclude my sermonette with the obvious — with my profound faith that you will stay the course in the race of the world beyond this leafy cloister, that you will use all the powers of your informed reason to cull out, prove, and hold fast to the good in all that you choose to write and to live... and that you will always be "healthy, nimble, strong, and well in breath."!
From that lofty peroration, let me turn to close on choices more personal and less cosmic. I am deeply thankful for the choices I have been privileged to make or to be the subject of. I am glad I chose Amherst as my undergraduate college, but even happier that I can now call Swarthmore my honorary alma mater (though that may add another pile of campaign solicitations to my mailbox). I'm grateful that I was chosen to go to Oxford, and I wish Jacob Krich as much delight and profit as I found there — though he may not be as lucky as to meet there my best choice ever, Ann who became my wife, the mother of our two great sons, and the source of loving support and joy through 37 of my years here. I hope that each of you will be as happy in your choice of a life partner. Only in that context does my choice to teach at Swarthmore come second. Your class stands for me as representative of each of the 39 graduating classes I have known, so I thank you for choosing Swarthmore, for being the kind of students who challenge, satisfy and reward those who work with them in classroom and seminar. I'm glad I was chosen and chose to be the Dean of the College for six years, and even gladder that I could choose to return to the classroom after that testing experience. I'm glad that I chose to involve myself with athletics at Swarthmore, and glad that so many of you have put your talents, energies and dedication to the test on our teams, and shared that experience with me. I'm glad I have the choice now to retire from regular teaching, or at least I think I'm glad because the ramifications of that choice and the choices that will follow all lie in the obscurity of the future. May you be gifted with as many fortunate choices. And now that I have reached the end of it, I'm glad I was chosen and chose to make this address today.
Now it is time for you to leave this well-labeled pastoral paradise on what one of my colleagues once pointed out is "on the last hill before Spain," to enter that hot and dusty world full of choices that will test you in new ways, and require all the skills of "proving" that you have practised here. You are ready for the race. Thank you for sharing this morning with me.